Nell Gwyn And Women On Stage

Nell Gwyn By Simon Verelst

Women On Stage

The 1660’s marked a time of great change for England. Charles II was welcomed back with open arms, the theatres were reopened and for the first time women were invited to take the stage. Previously, women’s character roles had been performed by young boys. With women now representing themselves it opened up a world of scandal for the stage, appreciated by audiences from all levels of society; from merchants to nobles and even King Charles II himself.

The introduction of women onto the stage in London brought with it a variety of changes to the theatre. The immediate impact was an increased interest by the public in all the playhouses operating in London. Women on stage aroused curiosity in the audience, and they were eager to see women on stage and the sensuality they brought with them. This objectification of women induced an evolution in the writing of plays during this time that led female actors to be sexual props on the stage, as opposed to equals with their male peers.

Layout of Christopher Wren's Theatre Royal

With people turning out in droves to see women actors on the stages of London, the scripts of the older plays were changed to seize the opportunities that having women play female parts created. In the past, playwrights would refrain from describing the appearance of female characters. The presence of actual women on stage brought with it the inclusion of erotic descriptions of these female characters and older plays were rewritten to include such language. Even female writer Aphra Behn altered prior plays to include erotic language depicting the undressing of women in previously vague moments.

Another prevalent trope that arose from the introduction of women onto the stage was that of the “couch scene”. In such a scene, an attractive actress was placed at center stage on a bed or couch, with the scene calling for her to be asleep and in a state of undress.

Moll Davis by Mary Beale

The most scandalous development following the inclusion of women on stage was that of the “rape scene”. With women being cast into female parts, the “rape scene” became a prominent feature of the tragedy in English plays during the 17th Century. The scenes were designed to sexualize even the most pure of female characters. This device allowed female characters to retain their virtue while still appeasing the audience’s desire for sexuality. As rape scenes became more anticipated in the plays, the scenes themselves became more and more explicit.

Another characteristic of 17th century plays was the use of “breeches roles”. Playwrights would incorporate scenes where women would have reason to dress up as men, wearing tight pants that exposed their legs. These “breeches roles” were very erotic to Restoration theatre goers, who were excited to see the shape of women’s legs.

The prevalence of rape and other compromising situations for the female parts on the stage gave an ironic spin to the admittance of women into the theatre. Instead of being a positive development, it served only to further objectify the gender. And yet, even amidst this exploitive sexuality, certain actresses of the time garnered acclaim despite the social limitations. The most famous of these actresses is Nell Gwyn.

Nell Gwynne, actress and Mistress of Charles II

Nell Gwyn

Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn was born in February of 1650. Her father, Thomas Gwyn, died in a debtor’s jail, prompting her mother to move her and her sister Rose to London. With the theatres closed, there were no outlets for Mrs. Gwyn’s talents and so she fell back on the oldest of professions, prostitution. Madam Gwyn, as Nell’s mother came to be known, eventually opened her own bawdy house, employing her daughters to serve drinks to the gentlemen patrons. Nell and Rose also worked as street venders, which is where Nell learned to project and use her voice.

Nell got her break from a lover by the name of Duncan or Dungan. After spending two years together, Duncan grew sick of her. However, in one last parting gesture, Duncan provided her with an in to the stage, most likely as an Orange Girl. An Orange Girl or Orange Wench, stood in the pit with their backs to the stage and sold oranges in between acts. Orange Girls also acted as liaisons between audience members and actresses, running back stage to deliver messages for later rendezvous.

List of Roles Nell Performed

Nell began acting at around 13 or 14 years of age. While her exact start date is unknown, there is evidence to support that Nell was an established actress by the year 1665, when the theatres closed briefly due to plague. Nell performed a variety of roles including servants, courtesans and ‘madcaps’ which were witty, mischievous young girls. Many of her roles were “breeches roles” which would entail Nell dressing up in boys clothes and prancing around stage, showing off her legs, an act that would have been very erotic to the Restoration stage.

Moll Davis by Sir Peter Lely

Nell acted for the King’s Theatre Company, a theatre rivaled by the Duke of York’s Playhouse, which subsequently also featured a young, attractive actress known as Moll Davis. Moll and Nell would have been roughly the same age and played similar parts on stage. In his March 7th, 1666/67 entry, Samuel Pepys compared the two actresses, indicating that Moll was the better dancer and had more attractive legs. In his December 8th, 1666 entry he did comment that Nell was better than he expected.

While Nell is known to be one of the first female actresses, she perhaps is better known for her affair with King Charles II. Charles was a frequent patron of the theatre and, like the Restoration audience, was intrigued by Nell’s wit and beauty. It is speculated, that Nell and Charles met at Madam Ross’s bawdy house and as the story goes, it was only after Charles married Catherine that Nell took Duncan as her lover. Charles and Nell began their affair around 1670 when Nell would have been roughly 20 years old.

While Nell and Moll may have been perceived as sex objects more than respectable actresses, their accomplishments on stage marked the beginning of women actors, a precedent that continues today.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: